Mega Roundtable Part I: Should Ray Shero Trade Kris Letang?
Seven vaguely esteemed hockey writers and one enigmatic radio host return to break down the Penguins with no regard for decorum or taste.
Photo by Dave DiCello
Gentlemen, scholars: Thanks for returning for another round of hockey nerdery. Our last Playoff Meltdown Roundtable left the masses clamoring for more. But there was one criticism that came up again and again: We were TOO SOFF on some players (#Therrien). To remedy that, I’ve invited a wildcard to the party this season. Please welcome Sean Gentille from the LAMESTREAM MEDIA Sporting News.
Here’s our full roster of bloviators:
Sean Conboy, Pittsburgh Magazine’s digital overlord and contributor to SI.com and Wired.
Rob Rossi, reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Russian bias.
Sean Gentille, National NHL writer for The Sporting News. Supplied beers with expense account.
Chris Mueller, co-host of 93.7 The Fan’s afternoon program. Stupifies drive-time Yinzers with big words.
Brian Metzer, NHL.com/Beaver County Times contributing writer. Penguins Live Radio host. Show-off.
Derek Rocco, co-founder of the hilarious Pensblog. Lives in his own home, thank you very much.
Mike Colligan, NHL analyst at Forbes/The Hockey Writers. Could break down your life in 30 seconds.
Jesse Marshall, co-owner of Faceoff-Factor.com. Honk if you’re CORSI.
Conboy: Let’s address the supremely coiffed elephant in the room: Kristopher Letang. 2013 Norris candidate! What’s going on with this fella? He has all the tools. He works harder than anybody. And yet … something is off when he’s in the lineup, no?
Rocco: Can we include Paul Steigerwald in this Letang debate? I feel we need someone who can blindly look past all of his faults and tell us how good the Penguins are.
Conboy: Ten seconds in and already shots fired. This is the perfect time for a disclaimer: We all know the Penguins are an incredibly successful team, but if you want to #gush about #theboys, then this isn’t your party. All aboard the Straight Talk Express.
Mueller: Letang is a freak athlete. He’s one of those players who should captivate a layman NBA-lover like me and make me say, "Wow, hockey is a beautiful game" while he's making an outrageous pass or joining the rush and rifling a wrist shot past a helpless goalie. Instead, I watch games and see him use his closing speed to chase a player that got loose because of an ill-advised pinch. The dude chased the play behind the opposition net 30 SECONDS into the game against Winnipeg and left Chris Kunitz exposed against Evander Kane. Brilliant.
All of this is an overly wordy way of saying the following: Kris Letang's problem is that he's too gifted for his own good. The truly great athletes recognize that no matter how skilled they are physically, true excellence pivots off of the idea of consistent evolution. Crosby refined his scoring touch. LeBron James developed a post-up game. Letang isn't in their stratosphere, but physically he isn't far off. Problem is, I think he looks in the mirror and already sees himself in a cape, bronzed, and not as a perpetually incomplete project, always requiring tweaks.
Rocco: Holy God. Only thing missing from that was a mic drop.
Conboy: And yet he was a Norris finalist last season. So he’s doing something very right. Marshall, stat me!
Marshall: Letang was on the ice for 39 even-strength Penguins goals in 35 games played last season. That number put him among the offensive elite in the NHL. His goals for per 60 minutes of even strength ice time was fourth in the league at 3.79, a rather astonishing number for someone whose primary focus is supposed to be defense.
Colligan: Here's the thing with stats for defensemen: you can come up with 10 numbers that show Letang is one of the best in the game today and 10 more to show he's a downright liability to the Penguins.
Marshall: This is true. Ready for the flip side of Letang? The bad news is you won't find his name anywhere near the league leaders for defense. He was on the ice for 22 goals against last year and was the worst on the team in goals against per 60 minutes of even strength ice time at 2.79.
I think the story of Kris Letang can be told in a quick recap of Game 4 against the Senators in 2013. Letang was on the ice for a few horrendous goals against in the first period of that game. The public was ready to have him shipped out of town. The next 40 minutes were about what he can do offensively. He somehow finished the night +1 with 4 assists and was a key reason the Penguins won that game.
Rocco: You could have played defense against that Senators team and had a few assists. What’s interesting is that last year Letang played 27 percent of his shifts at even-strength with Matt Niskanen. This year, Letang has played 46 percent of his shifts at even-strength with Olli Maatta. No secret Maatta and Niskanen have been the two best Penguins.
Conboy: Mr. Gentille, are Penguins fans too close to this? What do the national guys think of Letang?
Gentille: I think he's a very good player and potentially a great one before the contract becomes a factor. Now, do I think he's flawed? Of course. Mr. Marshall did a good job of quantifying what seems to be true — Letang is on the ice for a lot of goals, and a fair amount are his fault. Ironically, though, his non-goal based numbers are good. Last season, he played against, at worst, second-line competition and helped generate a larger portion of shot attempts than any other Penguins defenseman.
Conboy: This is why I hate that hockey only has two rigid position designations. What Letang really is, in fútbol parlance, is a deep-lying creative midfielder.
Gentille: At even strength, the Penguins took 54.7 percent of all shot attempts. In close games (defined as games that are tied or within one goal in the first and second, and tied in the third), that ticks up to 55.2 percent. Paul Martin was at 50.4 and 48.2 percent. It's a meaningful gap, and it's an indicator that Letang's lapses, while obvious, aren't exactly constant. If he can cut back on them, he'll be great — and even if he doesn't, he's still decent enough when you consider the amount of even-strength points he's in on.
Colligan: You know who wants Letang in Pittsburgh for a long, long time? 87. 71. 18. Letang's skating allows him to get the puck quickly out of the defensive end and onto the stick of Crosby, Malkin, Neal and the forwards who do rack up the goals. That sure beats having your star players spend an entire shift in the defensive zone.
Conboy: Maybe the narrative is just a bit distorted. Let’s talk about “elite young defensemen.” It seems you always hear about two guys: Letang and Erik Karlsson. And yet look at this season’s numbers for “Trendy D-Men” …
Kris Letang: 6 goals. 6 assists. -6.
Erik Karlsson: 10 goals. 29 assists. -12
PK Subban: 7 goals. 26 assists. +14.
Kevin Shattenkirk: 6 goals. 25 assists. +13
Alex Pietrangelo: 5 goals. 23 assists. +15
Drew Doughty: 6 goals. 17 assists. +13
Cam Fowler: 4 goals. 22 assists. +14
Caveat: I know Letang has only played 25 games, but something's off when you're a minus player on the No. 1 team in a very, very weak Eastern Conference? You know what else? All of those players are younger than Letang. Why do we keep hearing about Letang and Karlsson so much? Is this because of aesthetics? They are indeed exceptional skaters. Eastern Conference bias? Something else?
Rossi: Letang is not having a good season. It happens. There are probably a lot of reasons that would serve as legitimate excuses, but the easiest one is that he is a player whose game is based on skating, and he screwed up his right knee at the end of training camp in a season when the Penguins were implementing a completely new defensive system. So, he comes back in late October with less confidence in his right knee and almost zero confidence in a system that everybody else had a month to work on in games.
Mueller: When Rossi reported that he was stung by media and fan criticism, I was fine with it. Athletes are people, etc. When Rossi reported that Letang was unhappy with constantly shifting defense partners, I could see the point. Any so-called elite player wants consistency when at all possible. When Rob reported, however, that Letang was mad he was taken off the top powerplay, I got pissed. That kind of lack of self-awareness, that inability to see that most pucks off his stick hit the glass instead of the net bugged the hell out of me. How is he not seeing what everyone else sees?
Rossi: Penguins brass privately acknowledges they have done Letang no favors the last two seasons by not finding him a set pairing partner. This is also something Letang has addressed with me during our chats. Martin gets to play with Orpik, whereas Letang played with everybody else at one point last season. For this reason, Shero signed Scuderi. He views Scuderi — in addition to possibly cushioning the blow of losing Orpik this summer — as asset insurance for Letang. The idea: Give him a set partner, one that is an established settling presence in that role, and Letang will get back to where he once was.
Conboy: You know what’s wild? Drew Doughty (a talent very similar to Letang) was paired with Rob Scuderi in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 for those same reasons. The Kings even won a Cup. But over the course of those two seasons, Scuderi was a minus-13. Weird.
Colligan: Fans will be shocked at where salaries go over the next few years, and I still think Letang could have gotten $9 or even $10 million per year had he went to free agency this summer. On the other hand, a player in that pay range shouldn't need a high-caliber defensive partner to succeed. For $58 million, Letang should be the player that Dan Bylsma pairs with young prospects to raise their game to the next level. I haven't seen that yet. Olli Maatta wasn't improving as a player during his time alongside Letang earlier this year — he was a 19-year-old playing defense for two.
Rocco: Do we think Letang gets the same contract from Shero this coming offseason knowing what we know about how good Olli Maatta is?
Conboy: A few insiders maintain that Shero was actually thinking two moves ahead when resigning Letang this summer. Regardless of anyone’s opinion, $7.25 million is an extremely desirable contract for Letang when the salary cap goes up considerably in 2014-15. So, theoretically (!), the Penguins also have an elite trade chip. (Oh boy … Rossi just shotgunned a beer and is looking at us wild-eyed like Randy Savage. Take it away, Rob.)
Rossi: I never presumed the Penguins would not sign Letang. I did believe, based off my conversations with parties on both sides, that it would be a difficult, contentious negotiation. It was. Ray Shero always preferred to keep Letang. He preferred to do that at a certain number, or rather he was not going to go above a certain number, and he was going to stand firm on limiting the movement clause. The number — average annual value — was $7.5 million, and the Penguins ended up getting Letang at $7.25 million. So, they won there.
Conboy: And yet, for about a week it seemed like talks were going south.
Rossi: One thing turned the talks somewhat ugly. Letang was miffed by my report (by which I stand) that coaches and management did not grade him as their best defenseman last season. Paul Martin scored a higher grade. Letang was a first-time Norris Trophy finalist. He was the only NHL defenseman to average a point per game. He made the classic mistake of taking a negotiating tactic — in this case, people within the organization telling an aggressive reporter a juicy bit of information — and letting it eat at him. Full disclosure: I'm not sure he has moved past that report. I've heard him reference it enough that I do not think he has.
Conboy: The no-trade clause brouhaha made a lot of people say, “Hmmmm.”
Rossi: Yes, Shero balked at the full “no movement” clause for Letang. But it had nothing to do with Letang. It had everything to do with not wanting three players on long-term deals with full no movement clauses. Crosby and Malkin have full no movement clauses. Letang wanted one, but instead got the option of picking 15 teams every season to which he would agree to a trade. It's not full control, but it's big-time control that also gives Shero flexibility.
Conboy: Again I say, “Hmmm.”
Rossi: Look, people — ones smarter than me — can think what they want about Letang; but the notion, which I've heard, that he is immature because he’s bothered by what “people” think of him is dumb. He was bothered by what the people he worked for thought of him. Anybody would be in that case. If somebody says differently, they either are a liar or do not have respect for their bosses.
Conboy: I guess that’s my point. I think Letang is a rare talent. But is this the right fit for Letang at this point? The Penguins traded Paul Coffey in 1992 after he had just helped them win a Stanley Cup. Both parties ended up winning. The Penguins got tougher, won another Cup and Coffey went on to have a Hall of Fame career.
Rossi: Shero loves Letang. His view of Letang, as expressed to me, is no different from the one held by Brooks Orpik. That view, simplified, is that Letang is a better defensemen when he's not chasing points but rather letting the game come to him. Everybody around the Penguins cites Letang's best stretch as being before his concussion during the 2011-12 season.
Metzer: That’s the story of Letang, really. He has played a full season just one time in his career and has not done so since 2010-11. People always focus on the contract number, but Shero was just doing what all GMs in the league do these days. Everyone overpays defensemen, specifically defensemen with offensive upside. Like most bad things, this all goes back to the Calgary Flames. The Flames INEXPLICABLY traded for and then signed Dennis Wideman to a long term, $5.25 million dollar per deal back in the summer of 2012.
Conboy: As a GM, whenever you have a chance to lock up a player with a career plus/minus of NEGATIVE 58, you gotta pull the trigger.
Metzer: So you have to ask yourself, can the Pittsburgh Penguins afford to pay Letang $7.25 million dollars from here to eternity and still maintain a competitive roster? Sure, they could probably do that, but I keep coming back to this: Guys who make questionable decisions and aren’t great defensively need to dominate on the power play. Letang has yet to show that he is capable of doing that on a regular basis. Even Dennis Wideman can do that.
Marshall: Speaking of that, I am not trading Matt Niskanen right now. This is a guy that took a lion’s share of the work when you were rolling with five other defensemen that barely had a year of experience in the NHL and was absolutely shut-down in that role. He’s PLUS-21 this season.
Rocco: Yep, if the Penguins can’t resign him, Niskanen is going to make bank this summer. I’ve softened on Letang, but can anyone tell me why he always looks so out of place?
Rossi: A teammate once told me that Letang watches more video than any player he has ever known. This teammate was Hal Gill, who has played with several organizations. I bring this up because coaches have often pushed Letang to watch less video. Their complaint is that he micro-analyzes a fault seen on film then ends up screwing himself up in games because he becomes obsessed with correcting that fault. A coach told me that Letang always grades his worst in games after breaks or absences, but that when Letang can string together games consistently, he finds a comfort level that elevates him above most defensemen because his natural skill set takes over.
Conboy: That’s the ass-backwards narrative for ya. People look at Letang and see a prima donna, when in reality he’s as blue-collar as they come. Alas, try telling that to DONNY from BLAWNOX on line 2. “LEMME TELL YA SOMETHIN, I SAYS LEMME TELL YA SOMETHIN, CHRIS …..”
Rossi: Want to know what Kris Letang means to the Penguins, in a nutshell? He graded as their highest defensemen for the 2009 playoffs. Not Gonchar. Not Orpik. Not Scuderi. Shero could never shake the image of the Letang he witnessed during the 2009 Final, the one who took Marian Hossa completely out of that series. Current management views Letang and Olli Maatta as the pairing of the future. Might be worth considering when thinking about potential trades.
Rocco: Jesus, Rob. My biggest takeaway is I think you compared Kris Letang to the Dark Knight.
Conboy: Just for giggles, do we know what the Penguins could get in return for Letang?
Rossi: Last summer, Shero fielded calls about Letang. This was before his extension, so he was essentially a one-year rental player. Other teams were offering top-five picks and Shero's pick of their top prospect. So, there's that.
Gentile: Mueller wrote a poem. Rossi wrote a novel. Here's a haiku:
Letang's hair is great
Long, thick, shiny and healthy
So he's resented
Conboy: And … fade to black.